October 20, 2016—a day that will live in infamy!

Well, perhaps that title is a little over dramatic, but the truth is, great strides were made on that day despite the lack of fanfare.

During the early morning hours of that beautiful Thursday morning in Fort Collins, Colorado, 51,744 cans of Budweiser were loaded into the back of an eighteen-wheel tractor driven trailer.

However, this was not just a normal beer delivery to some thirsty patrons; this was the delivery that could change the entire trucking industry—forever.

What made this 120-mile event from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs historic is the fact that the entire open road portion was traveled without a driver in the driver’s seat.

This test run was months in the making. Earlier that spring, Anheuser-Bush, which makes Budweiser, reached out to Otto, a startup company bought by UBER, that is working to perfect self-driving trucks.

However, there was a driver on board the truck. After maneuvering the tractor-trailer away from the loading docks and out of the Fort Collins traffic, the driver hit the autopilot button and climbed into the back of the cabin. From the sleeper berth, the driver monitored the trip down Interstate 25 as the truck navigated through central Denver, over Monument Hill, and into Colorado Springs — but never took the wheel. The driver did climb back into the driver’s seat before exiting the highway.

Cameras detect the lane lines to keep the truck headed in the right direction, and sensors mounted on the front, rear, and sides detect the speed and distance of other vehicles on the road.

It should be pointed out that for this inaugural run, the truck was sandwiched between four Colorado state patrol cars and three vehicles from Otto. In one patrol car sat the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Transportation, Shailen Bhatt. Further caution was taken before the trip began by having a pair of tow trucks drive the route to make sure the highway was clear of any stalled or parked vehicles.

“We’re eager to begin to scale this,” said James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy at Anheuser-Busch. “I see a future where this technology becomes ubiquitous; it becomes similar to an automatic transmission or cruise control.”

It’s not entirely clear how soon driverless trucks will be a regular sight on America’s highways, both state and Federal regulatory approval are needed. According to Bhatt, it’s a legal gray area in Colorado, but he also thinks that self-driving trucks are also a promising way to limit congestion.

“If we work to perfect technology, we can shift a lot of these freight hauls to the dead of night and take advantage of our Interstate system when it’s underused,” he said.

Meanwhile, Daimler has been experimenting with its self-driving technology on the rural roads and highways in Nevada. They have introduced what they call the “Freightliner Inspiration.”

However, unlike the OTTO test, the driver remains behind the wheel, ready to take over at all times in case something goes wrong. The system is similar to cruise control, except that it also steers the truck. You have to stay behind the wheel, though, in case the software determines that it can’t handle upcoming twists and turns. In that case, the dash starts a 20-second countdown back to human driving.

“The human brain is still the best computer money can buy,” said Daimler Trucks North America LLC CEO Martin Daum.

No automaker will ever use the term “driverless” for a vehicle, preferring the safer-sounding “autonomous” or, in the case of the Freightliner Inspiration, “piloted.”

How it feels in the driver’s seat

“When you’re sitting in the cab of the truck, the freakiest part is watching the wheel turn on its own as the truck stays in its lane on slight curves in the road and even in heavy crosswinds. We were driving around outside Las Vegas, so you get some pretty big crosswinds, and the truck is doing those little things that you do, even without thinking about it, to make sure you’re staying right in the center between those lines,” Said NPR’s Rachel Martin who went along for a test ride outside of Las Vegas.

Proponents see autonomous technology as a way to improve road safety and make transportation more sustainable. They anticipate self-driving trucks will use fuel more efficiently than humans because they will drive the speed limit and anticipate looming traffic jams rather than slamming on their brakes.

Some experts warn that autonomous trucks will lead to mass unemployment for truck drivers. However, the American Trucking Association says the trucking industry employs more than 7 million drivers, but the number of drivers has fallen in the recent years. The ATA estimate a shortage of about 40,000 drivers that could grow to about 240,000 by 2022.

Lior Ron, Otto’s co-founder, sees drivers and autonomous trucks working in harmony. The human will become a copilot, taking breaks while the truck drives. Ultimately, Ron said, the truck will be more productive for more hours of the day.

Driving through crowded cities will be the biggest obstacle and will no doubt, at least initially, require drivers. Drivers will still be human, but might be called “logistics managers.”

Daimler believes that self-driving is the future of trucking and may hit the market before autonomous cars, expecting to be able to mass produce their Freightliner Inspiration by 2025.

In a bit of irony, not only was the Budweiser delivery successful but during the experiment, the Colorado state patrol encountered and apprehended a drunk driver while en route.

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David Cabral